03/07/2011 01:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Workers' Rights and the Public Good

I recently had the terrifying experience of being a guest on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." I put stage fright aside because Stephen Colbert, one of the sharpest wits in comedy, was dealing with a serious issue -- attempts in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere to strip public workers of any input or voice in what they do, how they do it and what they earn.

Colbert unmasked the absurdity of these efforts with questions such as "Why should union members get something good because they organized and fought for it, if other people don't have it?"

"I know that a rising tide raises all boats," he continued. "But when the tide goes out, I want to make sure I drag you down with me. Shouldn't everybody live a [terrible] life?"

Unions provide working people -- from teachers to steelworkers, nurses, janitors and firefighters -- with a vehicle to raise their standard of living and to press for the conditions they need to do their jobs well. Even though public employees didn't cause state fiscal crises, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and some other elected officials claim unconvincingly that they need to eliminate collective bargaining in order to "gain flexibility" and "repair budgets." But Americans aren't buying it, and polling shows that, two to one, the public opposes efforts to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights. Yet Walker has consistently rejected all offers to work with Wisconsin's public employee unions, which already have agreed to substantial cuts in their pensions and health benefits -- cuts that will hurt their families.

Collective bargaining is a vehicle to improve services -- whether in education or other areas -- and it would hurt both workers and those they serve if that important right was lost.

For example, I recently proposed a way to strengthen teaching, by aligning comprehensive teacher evaluations with systems of due process. The proposal lays out a fair and expedient process to identify, improve and -- if necessary -- remove ineffective teachers.

It starts with rigorous evaluations -- the kind that many AFT unions are negotiating with their school district counterparts through the collective bargaining process. The next step is a time-limited, but real, improvement and support plan for teachers who need help -- also developed and implemented through labor-management cooperation. The final step is a hearing or adjudication process. All of this ensures that, within a finite period of time, teachers will be evaluated regularly based on agreed-upon standards of what they should know and be able to do, will receive help if they fall short of those standards, and will be removed from the classroom fairly and efficiently if they simply aren't cutting it.

We have begun working with administrators and others to fine-tune this proposal, with the goal of implementing it in schools and school districts quickly. And the best way to do this will be through the collective bargaining process, with frontline educators and school administrators sharing responsibility for this important undertaking.

This is but one example of the improvements that have come about in our schools by giving classroom educators a voice, and a vehicle through which to strengthen teaching and learning. From adapting the school day or year to allow for more instructional time, to maintaining reasonable class size to maximize that time, to securing wraparound services that ensure students' basic needs are met -- teachers and their unions are using the collective bargaining process in ways that help kids, boost the teaching profession and promote the public good.

In the end, it's a question of what kind of country we want. Do we want a country in which individuals are powerless, and hard-working people are denied the ability to earn decent wages and benefits? Americans resoundingly say "no." Yet attacks on workers, their unions and their rights continue to spread. Unlike a Colbert monologue, denying the ability of working people to improve services and secure a better life is no laughing matter.